The DNL, Germany’s top junior circuit where players such as Leon Draisaitl have honed their skills, just completed its preliminary round at the beginning of November. Not unexpectedly, the junior team run by Mannheim Adler finished first overall and is heading into the playoff round with all cylinders on go.
This season is the first ever for the new junior team run by the Hamburg Freezers, however, which entered the league with a group of young men playing at what was generally considered to be two levels above anything they had ever witnessed before. As expected, the team struggled mightily at times, even having experienced a couple of very bitter defeats such as a 12-1 loss to Cologne and a 9-3 loss to Dusseldorf. Yet, as the preliminary round waged on, the team managed to keep things tighter and tighter, even going on to register regulation victories against Cologne and Krefeld as well as surprising overtime victories over Berlin and Krefeld. All that was topped by a 5-3 home victory over Mannheim, something that made the whole junior circuit blink twice.
These very promising results were due in great part to the goaltending of now 18 year old Maximilian Franzreb. Having stood in goal for all of his team’s games, he’s seen a whopping 1008 shots against in just 19 games, an average of over 53 shots per game. This is more than double the shots seen by any other goalie in the league. Despite this, he’s managed to sport a .919 save percentage behind the league’s worst defense.
These stats and the many surprisingly tight games the Young Freezers have managed to play have raised eyebrows around the league and around the German hockey community. A relative unknown coming into this season, Franzreb has gained a good bit of attention leading many to believe he’s got a future in professional hockey that should go above and beyond German borders.
Hockey’s Future had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the young keeper about this season, what he’s doing right, and where he hopes to be in the future.
Hockey’s Future: How long have you been part of this relatively new Hamburg Freezers youth program?
Maxi Franzreb: Since I turned seven. I’ve pretty much grown as a hockey player and learned my trade here in Hamburg. However, my dad played in the country’s second-best league for Bremerhaven and Wolfsburg until he suffered a career-ending injury and had to quit the sport.
HF: Where is he nowadays and how involved is he in your hockey career?
MF: He’s living back in Bad Tolz where I was born and began skating. We still have a lot of contact and he’s constantly following my hockey career. We’ll discuss things and how to approach games and practices.
HF: Last season, you lead the program towards promotion into the country’s top junior circuit, the DNL. This is as good as it gets in Germany. What was this experience like for you? Had you thought from the get-go that you and the program would be able to take that step?
MF: Well, it was exciting and important, but we’ve focused on getting to this level for a while – and we did that. Now we’ve made our way into this league, well aware that it was going to be very tough in this first season. We knew it would be a whole new world for us and our season goal this year has been not to get relegated. Survival was the only realistic goal at this point.
But as for our path to promotion, we started last season with two victories against Dresden and realized then, right away, that this could and should be the year. We had a tough point at mid-season when we lost to our most heated rival in gaining promotion, but that made us stronger and things went uphill from there. Now we’re where we want to be.
HF: You’ve now just finished the initial leg of the DNL season with a hard and heavy schedule and lots of games between the first weekend in September and then mid-November. The program suffered a lot of losses, despite a few surprising victories along the way. Who have the best opponents been?
MF: I’d have to say Mannheim, for sure. It’s not only because they’re the perennial champions at this level, but they simply have what seems like half of the U18 national team in their line-up. Heck, even their goalie [Mirko Pantkowski] is an outstanding talent and he was first born in 1998. They can beat you in so many ways.
Actually, all of the teams were tough to play. There was never a weak link or a night off. Every team could beat you if you weren’t ready to bring your “A” game.
HF: What is your take on the league and how has this experience been for you personally?
MF: For me it’s been just incredible. I’ve been seeing roughly 50 shots per game and many of our opponents have national team members, often several, playing in their line-up and well, stopping their shots has felt really good. It’s been very easy to be motivated for this level of hockey.
HF: So the fact that you’re playing for this team, where you knew you’d be facing better competition, has been just the right thing for you and your development as a goalie?
MF: Absolutely. I’ve come to discover a lot about myself and what I can really do.
HF: What have you experienced in this league that you may not have expected whatsoever?
MF: Our victory over Mannheim. That wasn’t expected. We saw them as an unbeatable team and we didn’t realistically think we’d be able to even get a point against them. But we played well and stepped up to the plate. Our 5-3 victory over them was the unexpected highlight of the year.
HF: But it wasn’t the only success you and your team had. The weekend beforehand, you hosted Eisbaeren Berlin, also one of the league’s most successful programs. You managed to take them to overtime both times, having even won the first contest. How did you experience that weekend, especially considering you were clearly the most important factor in making those overtime games possible?
MF: My team just worked so hard in all three zones. They were outstanding the whole weekend. Each of my teammates worked his butt off the other. It was a super weekend and instilled us with a lot of confidence.
HF: For context, how many of your teammates in this year’s team were part of last season’s team that gained promotion? How have things gone from a team-building standpoint?
MF: It was 10 of us that remained and moved up. The rest came to the team through tryouts or recruitment. To be honest, it took a real long time for the team to find itself and for everyone to start gelling together. We only managed to win one of the first 10 games and it was hard to put a finger on what was hampering us, but then two players transferred out and suddenly everything went click. As of that point in time, things just went uphill.
HF: Despite some late success in the preliminary round, you’re now heading into the relegation round where you’ll play teams from the DNL2. What have you learned from the first round that you’ll have to implement in the next round?
MF: We learned that you have to be focused and ready to play right from the start. We experienced that when we weren’t awake or ready right from the get-go, we fell into holes that we just couldn’t get out of at this level. Even against the lesser-talented teams, you can lose a game in the first period if you aren’t ready right away.
HF: You yourself took some big steps this fall and have arrived on the scene in a manner many outside of Hamburg couldn’t have expected. Safe to say that you enjoyed the challenges of this new league and level, one that the pro circuits watch heavily?
MF: It’s been wonderful. I can’t deny that there’s been a lot of opportunity to be the hero of sorts, because I’ve had to face so many shots. It’s an incredible feeling when you make a big save on an odd-man rush or breakaway and then you’re team grabs the puck and scores on the counterattack.
HF: What about your game has improved the most since having become a DNL player?
MF: I’ve been able to round out all my rough edges. I can remain calm and focused for the entire game. We’ve practiced so much that I’ve been able to improve every aspect of my game and get into the zone.
HF: You’re ability to keep your cool and be calm and collected is something that jumps out at anyone who sees you play. This quality is of great importance for a goaltender. Where has it come from?
MF: I am a very calm person as it is. That’s part of my nature. Furthermore, if a goalie doesn’t have that self-assured calming influence on his team, he can’t give the team that reinforcement, that backbone, that a team needs. When a goalie gets scored on and he stands up and shakes his head or shows a chink in his armor, he’s not giving the team the security and confidence that his team needs. After all, a game isn’t lost just because you get behind along the way.
HF: Do you find it difficult dealing with the fact that you can have goals scored against you, but you can’t go out and score them?
MF: No, not really. There are goals against where you know you could have done better. But then there are those where you know you couldn’t have done anything. It’s the same when skaters don’t score and they know, in hindsight, that they could have taken a different shot or tried something else. They still have to forget it in that second and keep working and playing hard. The next opportunity is coming.
HF: When watching you play, one gets the impression that you have nerves of steel. What is something in a game that can really rattle you?
MF: Oh, that’s easy. When I put my glove on the puck and cover it up and the opponent hacks at my hand a hundred times and the refs just stand there and let it happen. No whistle, no nothing. That really gets me boiling over.
HF: You recently turned 18. What are your career goals?
MF: To take things as far as I can. Ideally, I’d go via the third league, called Oberliga, then establish myself in the DEL2, just to make the jump to the DEL at some point. It does all seem so far away at this point and I’m putting my full concentration into the here and now and improving myself step by step.
HF: Have you had any thoughts about a career in North America?
MF: Two years ago I was in a tournament in Kelowna, Canada, where I and a teammate were able to showcase ourselves over a short period of time. Nothing came of things then, but I was just about 16 years old. I’ve evolved as a goaltender quite a bit since then. I’ve had thoughts about possibilities, but there have been no concrete options to date.
HF: You currently have something called a ‘Foerderlizenz’, which is a special pass for junior players that allows you to be called up to your partner affiliate in cases of injury, as I understand it. What is that about and what options does it give you as a player?
MF: Well, I’m technically allowed to suit up for the local HSV in the Oberliga, but the promotional license is officially for the DEL2 team, Bremerhaven. The team has two goalies and if one gets injured, then I can be called up to sit on the bench as the back-up during the game. There’s no obligation, but the option is there and a player rarely does anything to prevent being called up, but he doesn’t have to skip a DNL game to go be a backup somewhere.
HF: In general, it’s a productive thing and we have seen players with these licenses jump into a full time role for a pro team, even at an early age, but how did you get this license? What’s that process like?
MF: Our director is the one who set this up. He has a good relationship with the Bremerhaven organization and they established this license. The team naturally did its homework, scouted me a bit, and then decided they wanted me to slowly become part of their organization in this manner.
HF: Have you ever been scouted or contacted by the German Ice Hockey Federation (DEB), perhaps at a camp for selected players?`
MF: I was at a camp for U15 players a few years back where the DEB got a feel for a lot of young players, but I haven’t been part of any other selects team to date. I can’t hide the fact that I truly hope my DNL performance has opened some eyes and piqued some interest. It’s no secret that the northern part of Germany is an area that isn’t heavily scouted or watched by the national program, for whatever reason. Naturally, many of the country’s best players are coming from Germany’s southern and western regions, so you really have to stand out up here in order to get the attention of the national program. The competition is tough.
HF: At this point, what are your plans for next season?
MF: I could technically remain in the DNL team as an overage player. Every team is permitted to have three players who are 19 years old. But this season is still young and I’ll be open for anything depending on my further development. We’ll see how things look next spring and summer and what my options are. Naturally, in light of things to this point, there may be plans with Bremerhaven in the near future. I’ll also be finishing my high schooling next spring, so we’ll just have to see what happens after this season and my schooling being wrapped up.
HF: Just out of curiosity, and to wind things down, do you follow the NHL and have a favorite NHL team?
HF: The Los Angeles Kings are owned by the same corporation that owns the Hamburg Freezers, the parent affiliate of your junior team. Any chance you became a fan of the team when they were right here in Hamburg a few years ago to play a test game before opening up their NHL season in Europe?
MF: Believe it or not, I was already a big fan before they came here, because Jonathan Quick is my favorite player. But I obviously became an even bigger fan after their time here in town. The whole team is so well-rounded and well-built. They bring it day in and day out. Quick has such amazing reactions and is a proven winner. As for the Jets, I admit that my interest in them stems from Ondrej Pavelec. There’s something about him and how he can play when he’s at the top of his game that I really enjoy. So I automatically find myself following them and watching both teams whenever I can.
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